life is a gift, not a guarantee


Two people I knew died this week.

In what I recall to be about 1989 or 1990, I was a new member of the Buffalo Niagara Sales and Marketing Executives and had been recruited to join a committee for an event the association was hosting. Good thing too as I had pretty much decided I was going to quit the group because I hadn’t made any business contacts. Nearly twenty years later, as a BNSME past president, I’m still a member. (Moral: if you join an association, get on a committee).

The event BNSME hosted was a presentation by the famous pastor and author (ordered by importance there) Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, he of “The Power of Positive Thinking” fame. He was accompanied by his lovely wife Ruth Stafford Peale. As chair of the event’s public relations committee (ok, a committee of one), I got to spend time with both of them. I knew instantly then as I know now I was in the presence of greatness.

Not like the overblown greatness of athletes or the fleeting greatness of celebrities (many of whom are greatly gifted but in my personal experience with them seem frighteningly perplexed by the overblown adulation they received). No, with the Peales it was the type of greatness that you sense so strongly just through conversation that it is a certainty. So impressed by this couple was I that trying to summon the words to properly describe them now fails me…kind, faith-filled, caring, listeners. Ack, I am woefully inarticulate!

With all their knowledge and duties and responsibilities, they actively asked about me when I was with them and they held my name rather than so quickly discard it as would be understandable. They sweetly focused on and engaged me in a way that was beyond mere politeness. But clearly it was so much a part of who they were and how the Peale’s dealt with everyone, I thought, that there was no way they could behave in any other manner. Wonderful and honest people, the Peales were the very definition of gracious. They made me (and make me) want to be a better person.

Dr. Peale died in 1993 and at the age of 101, his wife Ruth died this week.

I arrived home on Monday night with news from my wife that her step mother had died unexpectedly Monday. She had taken a nap in the afternoon and didn’t wake up.

Grandma Judy adored her grandchildren, the two here now and even the one due in a few weeks. She sent a picture frame to us this past Christmas that held a sonogram picture of O’Connell 2 that simply said “we love you already”.

She came to our house for my daughter’s first birthday, when we gave the baby a play tent with a tunnel to crawl through. And who was one of the first people to crawl right in there and play with the baby who squealed with delight? Grandma Judy.

And there was the basis for my self-fish first thought upon hearing of her death: “She won’t get to see her new grandchild.” I was sad for the new baby, for all my family and for Grandma Judy. While she will watch from heaven, I’m selfish. I’d rather she was in the tent with the rest of us. I need to be a better person.

Today in the church before the mass, I sat in the pew behind my sister-in-law and father-in-law and I was thunderstruck by an image and an accompanying thought that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

As this father and daughter sat in front of me mourning the death of Grandma Judy, I realized it is no longer outside the realm of possibility that 40 years from now my own daughter could be sitting with me or my wife in a church pew mourning the other’s loss. It wasn’t a conceptual thought…it was real, too eye-poppingly, ear ringingly, brain stunningly real. While I always knew there was an end for us all, today for what was thankfully only a brief stinging moment, I felt it. I need to be a better person.

Will we even be blessed with those 40 years? I fervently and selfishly hope so. I so love my wife and children that I desperately want our lives to go on forever. But I’ve also long known (and now innately feel) that life is a gift, not a guarantee. You may live to a 101 years old but you also may not wake up from your nap. God bless Ruth and Grandma Judy.

I need to be a better person.

7 Responses to “life is a gift, not a guarantee”

  1. Lovely post, Peter. Life indeed is a gift. Sorry for your loss.

  2. Hi Donna:

    Thanks for the kind words, she was a nice lady who left me with an important message that I’ll always be grateful for. 🙂

    Best always,
    – Peter

  3. Peter,

    Powerful thoughts, beautifully written.

    And in terms of your needing to be a better person, I get the sense that Grandma Judy has already taken care of that. You’re a better person for having known her.

    You are (and she is) in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Powerfully written, Peter. Sorry for your loss.

  5. Doug and Elaine:

    My thanks to both of you.

    Best always,

  6. Peter,
    I’m sorry I’m late, but I’m so sorry for your loss.
    January 30th marked 5 years since my Dad left us…it has gone so fast.

    Thinking of you & your wife & family.



  7. Liz, thanks very much for your kind words and sadly its a universal truth….time goes by so fast!

    Your Dad would be VERY proud of you.

    Best always,
    – Peter